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Thriving in nature’s landscape

As they approach their retirement years, more farmers are reaping the benefits of working to enhance nature

Farmers are intimately connected to the land. Intuitively, they have always known that if they take care of the land, the land will take care of them, but life for young farm families is busy, and with the pressures of mortgages to pay and children to raise, environmental stewardship isn’t always as front and centre in their operations as they would like.

So, it’s no surprise that as farmers approach the later stages of their careers and have more time on their hands, their attention turns to doing what they can to enhance the environment.

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As corn and soybeans replaced tobacco in Norfolk County, farmer Chris Van Paassen, 58, grew worried. Windbreaks were being removed to make bigger fields to accommodate larger equipment, but in this county bordering Lake Erie, those windbreaks had been planted decades ago to prevent wind erosion of the sensitive sandy soils.

Van Paassen got involved in the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) organization, a farmer-driven program that helps farmers plant windbreaks, restore wetlands and establish other ecologically beneficial projects. On his own land he has planted tall grass prairie (the native vegetation on many of these sandy soils), windbreaks and shelter belts.

When he was still growing tobacco, Van Paassen worked long days, starting in February in the greenhouse. Now that he is no longer growing tobacco and his children are grown, he spends about a day a week as the chair of Norfolk County’s ALUS program.

Van Paassen likes that the ALUS program is farmer-to-farmer. “It’s two farmers leaning over the back of a pickup truck talking about what can be done.”

“A lot of enjoyment,” says David Ainslie.
photo: Supplied

About 150 farm families are involved in the ALUS program in Norfolk County with 1,500 acres in projects. Van Paassen points out that counting acres doesn’t accurately reflect the impact of these projects. “A quarter-acre wetland can have a big impact,” he says.

There are other spinoff benefits too. Researchers and grad students from the University of Guelph have been carrying out studies on many ALUS project sites which are also regular tour stops for busloads of students from the University of Waterloo.

Rita and Roger Ferguson, who farm in neighbouring Elgin County, are also participants in the ALUS program. While they did plant some trees several years ago, now that they are in their mid-60s and have retired from their off-farm jobs, they have more time and energy to put into environmental improvements on their land.

One sandy area that didn’t produce well has been planted to native tall grass prairie. “Might as well take marginal land out of production,” says Roger. “If it doesn’t grow much, might as well do something for the wildlife.” A buffer strip along the creek and a piece of land with a gully have been planted to native hardwood trees and wildflowers, including milkweed, to reduce erosion and support pollinators.

“We’re already seeing more bees, butterflies, turkey and deer,” he says.

While David Ainslie is winding down his farming career at age 74, he’s not sitting around twiddling his thumbs. He spends 40 to 50 hours a week spring through fall at his farm near Leamington planting native trees and flowers to enhance biodiversity. “I’ve reached that stage where I take a lot of enjoyment from it.”

To provide a buffer from the surrounding farmland, Ainslie has planted trees around an existing 25-acre second-growth forest where many rare species of plants are found such as dwarf ginseng, trillium, foam flower and ferns. He’s been planting forest-edge plants such as wild leek, golden Alexander, obedient plant and Jack-in-the-pulpit under the new trees.

Existing windbreaks have been planted with native flowers and shrubs such as bergamot, nannyberry and gooseberry to make them more biologically complex and to provide habitat for more species of native bees and butterflies. Mini-sedimentation basins created by Ainslie have been planted to wetland plants such as swamp milkweed, Culver’s root, blue flag iris and cattails.

“It’s about creating communities of plants; they’re all interrelated,” explains Ainslie.

Ainslie has had some support through the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association’s Species at Risk Program. While the program doesn’t fully cover his costs or his time, Ainslie says it does recognize the value of creating a more biologically diverse landscape. He worries that the area which is intensively farmed is losing its environmental resilience, which doesn’t bode well for future generations.

Sometimes doing something to benefit wildlife can be quite simple and easy to do. Hagersville, Ont. retired dairy farmer Doug Wilson, 70, helps out the barn swallows by leaving the doors and windows in his empty barn open from spring through fall. He estimates there are about 60 breeding pairs that make his barn home before migrating south in mid- to late summer.

After learning that Bird Studies Canada, a conservation organization, has been studying the birds (their numbers have plummeted in recent years), Wilson contacted the organization and has welcomed researchers onto his property to band the birds. “I always liked the swallows and I like to make sure they have a place to breed,” he says.

Mary Ellen King, 62, and her brother John, have worked for the past several years to restore wetlands, plant trees and create natural habitat on their 1,100-acre farm near Watford, Ont. They have taken advantage of some financial incentives, most recently through the ALUS program, but a lot of it they did on their own, says Mary Ellen. “We can’t just take, take, take. We have to put something back.”

Like Ainslie’s farm, the King farm is located in the Carolinian Zone, an area in southwestern Ontario cradled by the Great Lakes of Huron and Erie. Although this bioregion makes up only one per cent of Canada’s total land area, it boasts greater numbers of both flora and fauna species than any other ecosystem in Canada

The Kings, whose ancestors have farmed here for generations, are seeing the return of birds like eagles and bobolinks, plus soft-shell turtles. They have built a cabin overlooking the restored wetlands so they can enjoy the results of their efforts. Says Mary Ellen: “Doing what’s right is good for the soul.”


Resources

Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) is a farmer-driven program that provides support to farmers for environmental stewardship projects such as buffer strips, windbreaks and wetlands.

Many environmental stewardship programs in Ontario such as the Species at Risk incentive program are funneled through the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

Also contact your local conservation authorities or government office.

Carolinian Canada Coalition provides expertise, resources and acts as a gateway for funding for projects in southern Ontario.

Bird Studies Canada has volunteer opportunities right across the country including Project FeederWatch, Project NestWatch, owl and barn swallow counts.

Naturewatch is a national volunteer monitoring program used to identify ecological changes that may be affecting our environment. Initiatives include:

  • PlantWatch program: Enables citizen scientists to get involved by recording flowering times for selected plant species and reporting these dates to researchers, who work to identify ecological changes that may be affecting our environment.
  • MilkweedWatch program: Asks members of the public to identify the location of milkweed plants, which are crucial for monarch reproduction in Canada.
  • Other citizen science monitoring projects include WormWatch, IceWatch and FrogWatch.

 

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